Language is vital

Catherine Graffam

Catherine Graffam. Photo: supplied.

The way the intersex community has developed and reappropriated language is a beautiful evolution. Much like queer and other marginalized communities, we have used terms that traditionally stigmatize and oppress us as a vehicle of empowerment. Finding ways to subvert the tools of an oppressor is to reclaim agency over the ways you have been hurt. Medical institutions have used language to divide and isolate people with intersex traits, and much effort has been put into picking up those pieces and finding ways to bind ourselves back together using online resources. There are still terms left uncoined, and language to describe pain that has yet to surface and spread.

For decades intersex people have been reappropriating slurs and outdated terms. Photographs from the first protest by intersex folks in 1996 shows activists holding signs that say “hermaphrodites with attitude”, demanding for an end to the mutilation of intersex children. This is not dissimilar to tactics used by organizations like Queer Nation, whose reclamation of the word “queer” began during the AIDS crisis around the same time, and their fight to stop assimilation and defend their need for survival is still felt today. The use of “hermaphrodite” has become more fringe and frowned upon now that it’s understood as being sensationalizing, objectifying and flat out incorrect.

In the past decade, Disorders of Sex Development or “DSD” has taken this place in clinical contexts but has been criticized by activists as well for continuing stigmatization. Medical institutions are to blame for the enforcement of terminology that stigmatizes our bodies, making it easier for them to justify operation without actual reason. It becomes much easier to claim that you are “fixing” someone when you are the one deciding what is “defective” and “abnormal” in the first place. This has driven a need for language to describe and actualize our experiences and trauma.

Online communities have been important in the evolution of language and discussion of the politics surrounding intersex issues. On sites like Tumblr and Twitter, folks can reach out with questions and experiences that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with their doctors or even family. Fearing harassment, or improper treatment, they confide with others online. They can begin to freely question their own identity without someone with perceived authority saying otherwise. These intra-community connections have been going on since before current social media, but now it is in a more public and accessible setting. These exchanges of ideas should not be discounted because they exist on social media platforms. Important language has been created and spread based around these discussions and theory has begun to build upon thoughts shared.

New words like “dyadic”, meaning non-intersex, have begun to spread in recent years and are now commonplace in certain online circles. “Dyadic” can compare to the purpose of “cisgender”, which is used to avoid referring to non-transgender people as “normal” and therefore transgender people “abnormal”. Cisgender is now a dictionary-accepted term after its utilization by the trans community. Dyadic is just as important to the intersex community as it has similar implications. It further actualizes the identity aspect of our experiences and bodies, and allows anyone to understand their place in the dynamic between intersex and non-intersex people. Finding words to describe a set of experiences and feelings from a minority’s perspective have been important in empowering those marginalized groups.

While the discourse surrounding these subjects seems ever-changing, something is bound to stick. Most of us participating in these spaces are young, myself included, so our perspective in the journey through learning about ourselves can be bumpy at times and not always grounded in the context of the way the world works outside of the internet. Drawbacks aside, an environment where everyone stands on relative equal footing can be incredibly powerful for those who are vulnerable. Without the resources I found from researching online, I would have never understood myself as being intersex but rather just defective and broken.

Unfortunately, there are still so many terms left to be defined, new means of unpacking trauma and pain, and more spaces to facilitate healing.

I still cannot find a word for the feeling of longing for the body I once had. To return to the natural, untouched, state of myself that I had no chance to connect with before it was taken away. This bodily dysphoria I experience has no name which to cling to, and so by extension it is hard to share it with others. As we move forward towards ending mutilation of intersex children, terms for this specific trauma could be powerful in understanding the repercussions of unnecessary medical treatment. Further, this type of taxonomy could provide smarter access to mental health services and allow medical professionals to better understand the long term effects of improper treatment, without associating intersex bodies with further stigmatizing terminology.

Tuning into the ways language is adapting inside a community, especially during the digital-era, is more beneficial than allowing those with power to further capitalize on keeping us stigmatized and quiet. Language solidifies a feeling, a movement, a community. In order for us to flourish we must take the agency over the way we define ourselves.

– by Catherine Graffam. Catherine can be found on her website at and Twitter @catgraffam